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United Kingdom: Highest Court Reviews Terrorism Control Orders

(Nov. 2, 2007) On October 31, 2007, the United Kingdom's highest court, the House of Lords, gave broad support to the controversial government control-order regime for terrorism suspects. At present, there are 14 individuals subject to such orders, but three can no longer be located. The court also created new rights for those accused of terror-related crimes. The three judgments involved concerned nine suspects under control orders, a key measure of the government's anti-terrorism initiative.

Among the new restrictions imposed on control orders are the limit on curfews that may be imposed on suspects and the ruling that to protect the right to a fair hearing, the system of secret evidence must be modified. In one of the cases, six Iraqis were considered to have been subject to conditions that were too draconian, as they had been placed under 18-hour home curfew. This control measure was seen as a breach of the right to liberty as established in the European Convention on Human Rights, but a 12-hour curfew was ruled acceptable. In fact, the curfews currently in place have already been reduced by the Home Secretary, who said of the decision, "I am pleased that the law lords have upheld the control orders regime and judged that no existing control orders need to be weakened. … I am disappointed that they have found against control orders containing 18-hour curfews which I feel were required to protect national security." Imposition of 16-hour curfews is now being considered; at least one law lord has said they would be acceptable.

Another aspect of the ruling is the decision that evidence based on intelligence cannot be kept secret from suspects and their lawyers. The government had been providing suspects with special advocates who are attorneys with security clearances. These special lawyers were intended to protect the interests of suspects in secret hearings, but were not allowed to discuss the classified material they reviewed with the suspects. The law lords determined that this system of special advocates was not a sufficient guarantee of a fair trial and that suspects must be able to see all the key evidence against them. Two cases were sent back to the high court that had considered them.

The human rights group Liberty, commenting on the judgments, called them a "significant blow" to the control order regime, but went on to state that the decisions would "cause few celebrations at Liberty or the Home Office, and fully satisfy neither fairness nor security." (UK Law Lords Give Legal Backing to Control Orders for Terrorism Suspects, THE GUARDIAN (London), Nov. 1, 2007, Open Source Center No. EUP20071101015002.)